Dear Cathy - we're still out in the cold

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Thirty years ago, the TV film 'Cathy Come Home' revealed to a shocked nation the extent of Britain's housing crisis. Immediate action was pledged; the charity Shelter was founded.

How much has changed since? The author, who researched and wrote the film, reflects on the continued presence of forced evictions, homelessness and housing famine - what Cathy achieved, and what it didn't

"I feel jubilation," one homeless father cried out to me as he entered the gothic portals of the ancient workhouse to rejoin his family.

One of the most important changes achieved by Cathy Come Home was that hundreds of husbands were allowed to join wives and children from whom they had been separated in hostels for the homeless.

This, it can be safely claimed, was a direct result of the film and the campaigning done by myself and Ken Loach, the film's director.

This separation of husbands was an appalling custom which split up families at a traumatic time when they most needed each other's support. In at least one hostel, men had been sent to prison for climbing in to be with their loved ones.

Birmingham allowed hundreds of men to rejoin their families in time for Christmas. Other hostels followed suit, so that throughout Britain, these tragic forced separations were brought to an end.

There were other changes. Many hostels at that time turned mothers and children out into the streets between 2pm and 5pm to "get some fresh air" and "find themselves accommodation", even when it was raining. Many hostels operated a curfew, sometimes as early as 8pm. Mothers who got back late were penalised with the threat of eviction. That cruel rule was also abolished as a result of Cathy.

This happened very dramatically in Birmingham, where, half-way through a large public meeting about their plight, all the homeless families got up to leave to be back in their hostels in time for the curfew. The council official responsible got a round of applause when he rescinded the curfew on the spot. Again, other hostels throughout the country followed suit.

Conditions at Newington Lodge in Southwark, which was a sorting place for homeless families in the old LCC area, and the first hostel I visited, were heartbreaking.

It was a vast and austere Victorian workhouse in which up to three or four families were crammed into each room.

There was a feeling of utter hopelessness. Feeding was communal and there was endemic dysentery from which children were dying.

Mothers, at their wits' end, kept their children away from the dining room, hoping that this would prevent them catching the disease. But they had to pay quite a large rent for being here and couldn't afford to feed their children; in the end, they would have to use the dining room, with sometimes fatal results. Little coffins were often seen leaving Newington Lodge on their last journey.

Some mothers, as I showed in Cathy, did a runner, tried to hide somewhere and fought to keep their children when eviction came. "My children were torn from my arms, just like you showed," wrote one mother after seeing the film.

Cathy brought an end to that. A government circular urged local authorities not to separate children from their parents for reasons of homelessness; parents and children must whenever possible be kept together. Within a year or so, the number of children separated from their parents in this way dropped from thousands a year to hundreds.

So now for the bad news. When Cathy was first shown, there were 12,500 people, including children, in emergency accommodation for the homeless. Thirty years later, in June this year, the equivalent figure was 100,000 - a tenfold increase. (Of these, 12,000 people were in bed and breakfast establishments, at a cost of a million pounds a week, or pounds 33 per head per night).

Immediately after Cathy, there was a Labour pledge to see that building would be increased to 500,000 new homes a year. In the following period, 200,000 council homes were built yearly. We did, just once, pass the 500,000 figure.

Then came the great housing cutback, initiated by Labour and continued by the Tories. Last year, only 812 council dwellings were built; to which should be added 31,000 housing association dwellings.

Last year, there were 50,000 mortgage repossession evictions - 1,000 each week, or 20 each working day.

Last year, 125,000 households were officially accepted as homeless by councils in England - part of well over a million households accepted as officially homeless over the last decade.

These figures do not include single homeless people, among them the sort that Cathy became when, deprived of husband and children, she was no longer allowed to remain at the hostel for the homeless.

At that time, it was rare to see people sleeping out on the streets. Now it is common in many areas. Emergency accommodation in bed and breakfast hotels is an improvement on the old workhouses, but a hotel room suitable for one or two people on holiday is no place to bring up a family. Of an evening, amid a sea of beds and boxes and suitcases containing the families' possessions, Dad may typically be watching the telly, Mum cooking up tea on an illegal electric ring, baby crawling around creating havoc and daughter trying to do her homework.

Oblivious to all this, the Government has come up with a housing act which will weaken even further the duty of local authorities to provide emergency accommodation, or provide permanent homes for homeless people. The act also makes it easier for landlords to evict tenants with rent arrears.

Those who aspire to ideas beyond their status, such as a home where they can live secure with their children peacefully, are still reminded that they should not be too optimistic or cocky.

Extraordinary though it may seem, the housing famine appears to me to have been artificially created. The thinking might be that people who are homeless or in fear of eviction will be reminded of who is boss and be less likely to take to the streets in protest.

In a time of great bonanza, with the mega-sale of once-for-all assets - oil and nationalised industries - a government that for year after year can acquiesce in the homelessness of so large a proportion of its population must surely be reckoned unfit to govern.

There is, it seems to me, a case to be answered. Could we not return to the idealism of the post-war years (another time of housing famine), when scores of thousands of returning soldiers and their families took the law into their own hands and occupied empty property, especially the camps made redundant by a shrinking army?

There are not far short of a million empty homes, many kept void by army or government departments. Have we as a nation lost all memory of that idealism and ability to do what is right, even if it does mean trampling down bureaucratic complacency, possibly bypassing some of the sinking bogs of red tape? Are the ordinary folk - you and me - too cowed these days to do it? There is far more empty property than there are homeless people. Britain and its resources belong to all of us, not just to police or government.

We have not been overrun by an overweening, impertinent, authoritarian, hostile power who have planted themselves in our town halls and seats of government, even if it sometimes feels like it.